There will be those who will not believe this tale. Some of them, because they feel they have gotten to know the subject of my chronicles, and believe he would never come to such a pass. Others, because this story touches upon shadowy realms that exist right in the midst of the world we know, and if we were to acknowledge them, our society might be overrun with something other than clarity. But I can assure you that I have recorded everything faithfully—even, as is my custom, that which I do not condone or understand. Sherlock Holmes had one more true failure than I had previously reported, in addition to the Irene Adler cases, and indeed, this failure came about as a result of that woman's influence.
Some years ago, towards the beginning of our time sharing quarters and cases in Baker Street, Holmes was in one of his black moods. It was his longest prostration to melancholy since I'd known him. He had almost a dozen projects started and abandoned in his parlor, among them a complicated chemical experiment with tubes and beakers stretching across the dining-table. He had also pulled out his considerable collection of spent bullets and was adding to his interminable monograph on what could be learned from spent rounds.
At some point he had pulled out all of his unsolved cases and unapprehended criminals. At first he had little stations set up around the room dedicated to how he could have rubbed out each of these black spots upon his stellar record. There was a little shrine of newspaper clippings about the murderess Quimby located near the whiskey bottles, but that had long since joined all the other traces of Holmes' past in a united specter of his own frailty.
It was useless to tell this exemplary man that even he was human, and what is human can never be perfect. This febrile intellect had gotten transfixed by its own workings, and I watched Holmes watch himself until he saw something ghastly. There, I could not follow him.
My old friend had gotten past the violin stage, which is my way of marking the point of true despair, the point at which I cease to sympathize as a friend and become his physician.
My patient sat so still he occasionally gave me a start, realizing he was there all along but I had forgotten him while weighing my next step. His usual imposing manner was gone, so I went ahead boldly. "Would you allow me to give you a prescription?"
The shadowed eyes barely glimmered with interest. "If you've changed your feelings about cocaine, perhaps we can indulge together. I value the drug as a way of attaining the most active kind of lethargy, a balance between extremes that cancels itself out. Mercifully. It would be enjoyable not to have to try and fail to put it into words for your sake."
It was the most he'd said together in days, so I was heartened enough to say, "A tincture of Hypericum perforatum is more indicated for someone in your situation. I have heard that when someone rises out of the depths of despair, it is a sort of intoxication, one that I would wish for you."
His noble head sunk back into his chest. "If you really love me, Watson, you'll find a nice crime to distract me. If you truly had affection for me, you'd set about committing a crime yourself. But one worthy of my attention, now, an infraction that is somehow just in its own way, one that will take all my ingenuity to keep you out of the gallows."
"You have, on occasion, kept a person from further punishment when you felt that they had already paid for their crime," I said, trying to keep his attention. "Could I count on the same treatment?"
"For you Watson, I know you have already paid the penance of ten men, simply by tolerating all my black humors and inscrutable whims." The very tiniest of smiles was upon his lips for just a moment before being swallowed up in the blank expression that had occupied that usually mobile territory for days.
"If, and only if, my crime were just," I mused, trying to continue Holmes' fancy. "If I were to blackmail someone who was himself a blackmailer, or arrange an accident to befall a murderer."
"Hopefully it would be something less obvious, but it would be an act of mercy indeed for you to allow me to feel the thrill of the chase once more."
The bell rang, and we both perked up in hope that the very thing had arrived. Unfortunately, it was a case of a fiancé who had disappeared. The bride preferred to think he was kidnapped by marauders rather than face that he had simply jilted her.
The situation was painfully obvious to me, but Holmes' eyes burned with futility. He turned around abruptly in what I knew to be desperation for some truly knotty problem rather than this single limp strand of a case.
The girl was none too pretty and doubtless had been thrown over by a young man who suddenly valued his freedom over her handsome pension. But to the poor creature, the detective's brusque indifference was the last harsh gesture in the series of hurts that had seen the destruction of her dreams.
She burst into tears. Tea was rung for. I talked to her in my most soothing tone of voice for over half an hour while my friend darted looks of agony my way. By the end of it, I thought Holmes would be the next to need his hand stroked while I trotted out such obvious commonplaces that I was ashamed to hear them in my own voice.
At last, the girl was dispatched, finally willing to accept the great detective's agitation as proof of his very real illness, which thus excused either of us from hunting down promised husbands.
I walked down the street to buy several of the foreign newspapers that Holmes usually keeps track of when he is well, though these might be added to the untouched pile in our parlor. My French is adequate but my knowledge of Spanish comes only by way of Latin. Thus, it was in a considerable state of excitement that I returned to our quarters waving Madrid's daily, now several days out of date.
Sherlock Holmes barely looked up from where he was lining up the potatoes and carrots in his otherwise untouched bowl of soup.
"See anything interesting?" I asked, unfolding the front page on the table.
There was a long silence, and I thought he might have gotten distracted by his own poor Spanish. Then I heard, "A Spanish anarchist group claims to have stolen a very valuable cache of jewels, and the Spanish government denies the allegations. I know, it could be bravado on the part of the revolutionaries. But mark this well, Watson. The regime of Alfonso XIII, which, like its monarch, is in its infancy, did not say that they posses the jewels, safe and sound, in their vaults. They say something to the effect that, 'We deny these allegations entirely.' Or is it, 'We have nothing to do with this matter?' It will take some study to decode it, but I salute you for identifying this very promising matter."
He held out his hand to shake mine, but I forced his finger to a small image on the lower part of the page.
"You have entirely missed the appearance of an old friend." Then I read what I'd been able to gather from that brief article: "Irene Adler, wanted most urgently for questioning in relation to a theft. Reward offered, etc."
Holmes' eyes came alive, but he stayed very still, as if afraid to frighten away this precious development by moving too quickly.
I laid the newspapers on the chair next to his and began clearing up the worst of the mess while he was distracted. My friend gave in to curiosity shortly, and while he studied the papers I dared to put a dictionary nearby. He merely grunted, but in a few moments he'd deigned to touch that, too, and soon he was talking.
"Dr. Watson, we were both correct in the summaries of our respective articles—each of them compelling alone. But it is when considered together that a truly fascinating tableau begins to emerge. Have you ever known Ms. Adler to possess any politics?"
"Other than making sure she lands on her feet, no."
"Precisely, good sir. This lady cares little of politics except that they make people behave irrationally, all the better to exploit to them her purposes. My early theory is that she was acting as a broker for some foreign power seeking to benefit from the civil unrest in that realm by acquiring some of the monarchy's riches. The anarchists, very picturesquely named La Mano Negra, the Black Hand, must have had a similar idea and stolen at least part of the treasure first.
"Since the actual thieves have already sold one of the pieces and claim to possess many more, Irene must not have won the prize this time, yet she's become the scapegoat for the caper. Other than the fact that the king's representatives will not discuss the subject at all, it seems to be a case of Irene needing to move very quickly to a change of scenery."
His deductions ran out much more quickly than I had hoped from a sighting of Irene Adler.
"I'm sorry that it wasn't much of a challenge after all." Now I felt somewhat dejected, and I lit a cigarette to fill the suddenly empty afternoon.
"But it is, Watson. This promises some entertainment for the two of us." Holmes was up and pacing around the room while gesturing with his pipe. "If she is the prime suspect—and what other wanted thief would make the front page, sir?—Irene must have gotten quite close to the jewels, or at least her intentions to steal them must have reached La Mano Negra. Your article said she was briefly detained, and no thief ever hopes to be touched by the law."
"Good Lord." My feelings towards Holmes' muse were ambivalent, but I should not like to see her molder away in some Spanish jail. "Why do you say that she was in the employ of another? Ms. Adler doubtless prefers to be her own mistress."
"It's a queer business when the monarchy won't acknowledge ownership of a store of priceless jewels, but I take it to mean there is some special consideration that only an outside influence would compel our heroine to take on."
Holmes' pacing turned a corner. "Her employer would have wanted nothing more to do with this failed thief except as a scapegoat, and yet she was held for questioning once before someone engineered her release on a technicality. The question is, where is Lady Irene, and what is she willing to do to see this matter safely behind her? The news reaches us so slowly."
"You could send a telegram if you have contacts in Spain. Unless you're up to traveling," I suggested to him.
"I'm up for anything and everything, Watson. At all times," said the man with a week's worth of beard and soup all up his sleeve. "But it will be far more amusing to wait and see how long it takes the Irene Adler to reach out to me."
I laughed at a wish run away with itself. "You think she would seek your services?" Irene Adler had toyed with Holmes on two occasions, but had never deigned to request his help.
"Not in as much, no, but she is aware that setting off a certain chain of events will put her in the scope of Scotland Yard, and then, if she is canny, it will be discarded as a matter of little interest by the police, and as such land in my lap."
Holmes was warming to his theory, now, and though there were few facts to back it up, I wouldn't interrupt him for the world. "She knows my morals to be unbending but highly idiosyncratic. And this is a lady who doubtless has information that could resolve three dozen of my most irritating unsolved crimes." A nervous hand gestured at the shrines dotting the room. "That's worth a passage on a ship bound away from Europe under a captain who owes me a favor or two." Holmes rubbed his hands in anticipation.
A thin, pale detective was suddenly in fine form again, bustling around the parlor, shoving things in drawers and trunks if they were handy as if la Adler were about to descend upon us at any moment. "Good heavens, Watson, you've let things go to seed! This won't do to receive a lady, and what's more a criminal of her distinction!"
An hour later, his exertions done, Holmes sank back in the chair that bore his narrow indentation, this time, like a snake waiting to strike. I could only watch the scene, hoping that such a nervous temperament would spend a little time in a happy medium before seeking the exaltation he requires.
Holmes fell asleep. I'd wager it's the first natural sleep he's known in some time, because the sachets I discreetly supply for that purpose were consumed without comment.
The next day there was no word, and the next, but Holmes was in good spirits, reading through the entire towering stack of foreign newspapers in the corner. He sent me out for history books referring not just to Spain but to all of Europe dating back several centuries.
When the bookshops were exhausted, my next task was to employ the help of one of those destitute geniuses who subsist off the back of the British Museum. The one I chose for hanging about the right part of the collections evidently understood something that I could not from Holmes' strange note. This Toby Duffle was so exercised he almost forgot the money I tried to press into his hands.
None of the world's riches would induce the somewhat recovered Holmes to leave Baker Street, however.
He quite nearly throttled me at the front door when I came back one day with the results of Toby's research. "You have the step of a man with news to tell, I could see it when you turned the corner," he said exultantly. "My theory must have borne out."
It was so good to be greeted by optimism. I steered my friend up the stairs and into our rooms, much enthused myself.
I held the sheaf of papers aloft out of his reach. "It was Italy."
"Oh?" Holmes was put off stride.
"But not only Italy."
"My deduction was correct!" Holmes pounced upon the documents filling in some information about the treasure trove that had been discovered in Spanish chests about two months ago—some of which had ended up with La Mano Negra. The details of how these riches had been uncovered were hazy, but it was clear that they had been hidden for some time, and that several powers—most notably Italy and another power—had been circling around the items, each hoping to claim a share. Holmes' eyes scanned the pages rapidly while he spoke.
"If Italy employed our friend Miss Adler to obtain the valuables, that does not concern us except to the extent that we should like our most worthy Adlerian adversary to fight another day. But the other contender has been very much engaged in this contest, only doing things their own way. A way that does not usually make the papers."
I rang for tea and sat watching happily as that great mind creaked into its normal rhythm. Finally, the last paper was thrust aside, and he began to speak.
"Since the loss of the last of their territory in 1870, the Papal States are the power with the greatest need to claim these riches which appeared at a very opportune time for their interests, which are very important to many." He nodded to himself. "All across Europe there are any number of Romish sympathizers anxious to bring their pope out of his current burrow in the center of the city. This is of much greater significance than the Italian group trying to shore up the status of that country's monarchy by employing one of the premier thieves in Europe," he raised his teacup in honor of Miss Adler. "There are many Italians for whom the papacy has far more allure for Italians who know the perpetual state of disarray of their politics. The same holds for Spain."
"But you're sure it's the Italians and not the Vatican that asked Irene to obtain the treasure that is rightfully theirs?" I inquired, somewhat overwhelmed by all this history.
"Please, Watson, the idea that a pope would employ an adventuress is not only an infamous suggestion, but you must remember that drawing a straight line at this point in the game will likely lead you far from the mark. Now join me, if you will, in tracing this complicated web."
I spread the papers on one end of the dining table while Holmes unrolled a map of the Continent at the other. We were back at work, side by side.
"Our ragtag historian fit the bill splendidly, Doctor, I could not have chosen a better one." I beamed. "There are others like Mr. Toby Duffle, whom I have encountered in previous jewel thefts of a much more pedestrian nature. You and I have traced the pedigree of known diamonds and rubies and pearls that have gone missing."
"It's just as when a wife goes missing. You look for her previous attachments," I supplied.
"And people are equally as unlikely to give up an attachment to a precious stone, however imagined it might be, as they are to a claim upon a lady's affections." Holmes approved. "But you and I, my friend, we chase after actual jewels. Mr. Duffle is one of many who ruins his eyesight searching after jewels that have been lost and never found. It's not always something as notable as a theft."
"Toby said that he's identified dozens of jewels that simply stopped being mentioned at some point. Still, Holmes, I would have said it was a bit of a step to say that they're not in someone's strong-box right where they should be."
"Others might be at the bottom of the ocean, yes, they may not be a matter of much interest for us. But then enter the Roman Church." Holmes pushed a bishop from the chess set across the map.
"Your friend at the museum confirmed my first explanation for why the Spanish government would issue such a categorical denial when a simple, 'It isn't our treasure,' would do."
This was a point I couldn't follow from the historian's theory that the recently discovered jewels had something to do with the notorious Spanish Inquisition. I ventured; "It stands to reason that there would be plenty of spoils dating back to Spain's time as the center of the Inquisition, ill-gotten gains from those burnt and otherwise tortured. They would have been mostly Spanish, I would think, and if nobles were among them, I can understand why many people would have wondered where these of the disappeared riches ended up—"
"Or where they came from, Watson," Holmes broke in. "Given that some see the Spanish Inquisitor's court as a hub for denunciations that went on throughout Europe. Those clerics were working ostensibly under the control of the church, but it was a splendid opportunity for those so inclined to use the threat of all the almighty to make off with all manner of booty that was never sent to Rome."
He laughed at my shock. "Torquemada was an unbending judge, but perhaps he had his own vice in the form of greed."
"But if these items have been languishing in a Spanish vault for centuries, which seems the most likely explanation, why should Alfonso XIII not stake a claim for them? They're more his than anyone's, I should think, and with things being so bad in his country, he could use the wealth."
My friend was busy distributing salt across the map in little mounds. "Let's assume that, however it happened, the Inquisition enriched Spanish soil with more than the blood of people unlucky enough to fall into its clutches." He pushed the crystals to the Iberian peninsula. "Spain has never admitted these jewels and other treasures have rested in their coffers all this time, because any goods confiscated from people rounded up as heretics at the time would have a good chance of being returned to their original states, depending on how much a current government recognizes the authority of church law and some rather heated trials—if you pardon the expression."
My friend's jest about the burning of heretics during that time caught me off guard. Then I asked, "So you think determining this ownership would be highly messy and embarrassing for Spain, especially now given that things are none too stable there."
That understatement about the tumultuous region elicited a snort. Then Holmes said quietly, "Any more than the pope wishes to admit to needing funds."
"But you just said no one would want to lay claim to ill-gotten gains."
He set down his papers and ran a hand through his hair. "Some of those jewels must have been stolen from the Vatican itself, what could have been centuries ago. It's the only theory I can come up with for Rome's involvement. There is information we do not have, Watson."
Holmes threw up his hands at my look of consternation. "It's the only possible reason for why my telegrams have been met with the strangest kind of effusive nothing. Everyone has something to complain about in Spain! But no. The almighty soul is at stake, Watson, hence my sources in Spain have had little to say. A world-class thief, a shaky monarchy, a nearly as shaky Italian state," he moved chess three chess pieces to Iberia, followed by the bishop. "When such a rare confluence of events happens, the intervention of the divine may very well throw off even my calculations."
"It seems the sort of business Ms. Adler should have let alone," I observed. "Perhaps I can tell you everything else I learned over some supper."
"Fine, fine," he waved me off, studying his tableau. I counted myself very content with having gotten most of a roast fowl and a dish of peas into him, physically, while he concentrated on consuming every word I repeated from the historian.
After dinner the sleuth joined me for the dessert I had been saving for him: the sketches our researcher had kindly provided so as to give us some idea of what was rumored to have disappeared in the Inquisition.
"Some of these pieces are exquisite. And they're only the ones Mr. Toby Duffle has tried to track. Imagine what sort of riches the church might possess, my dear Doctor, then we're really looking at antiquities." He focused again at the drawings from the historian. "If only a third exist, even if they are broken up, which would be very foolish—"
"They would cause quite a splash when they hit the market," I ventured after a long silence.
"The European market, but widen your gaze, Watson. I daresay there are plenty of people at points west, south and east who do not feel any compunction about putting their immortal souls in the balance when they trade for a long-lost diadem of emerald and diamond that was once appropriated by Torquemada. A Buddhist, for instance, has at once a very forgiving and very rigorous concept of the soul—"
My friend could go on by the hour about the wisdom in his favorite sections of the Orient, but I was anxious to keep working on the matter at hand.
"Do you believe Irene Adler is still in Spain?" I asked.
"Irene knows full well that her dossier includes many entries of interest to the police in several countries, so I am not sure which of them she may have deemed safest for her at the moment.
With Ms. Adler, it is best not to stick one's neck out too much with theories." We exchanged a wry smile, recognizing that she had bested him twice.
"Perhaps she made away with something after all—you see here there are any number of pieces to this trove. Either way, she is in a predicament, Holmes. The lady must know how much she is worth to you and is planning to make an overture." My friend's earlier idea that the adventuress might seek him out no longer seemed so preposterous.
"I should be rather disappointed if that were to be all from the grand Irène, but we shall see."
Eventually, Holmes did dare to leave Baker Street. He became frustrated with my torpid accounts brought back from the various foreigners he had me visit in the name of finding groups working to preserve the prestige of the Vatican.
To me, this link in our web of intrigue remained completely invisible, so Holmes schooled me on it when he was in.
"Many Catholics have did not take kindly to the annexation of the last of the Papal States in 1870, and they are deeply wounded by their pontiff being held 'prisoner in the Vatican' with his terrestrial holdings more measurable in yards than miles. I believe the Holy Father to be no less of a politician than a pope, Watson. Mark my words, his decision to retreat into his palace until some lands were returned from the newly unified Italy is playing upon the only capital he has left—that very outrage his flock feels by the loss of his prestige."
That Holmes' irreverence about politics would extend even to the Roman Catholic leader did not surprise me, but I had a very hard time following his logic after that. My friend pulled out dozens upon dozens of newspapers and found evidence in them of covert societies working to reinstate the papacy on ground more fitting of its dignity. It was the same when he indulged in his sometime habit of finding traces of Irene Adler in the most unlikely places all over the globe—the pastime was so engrossing as to almost indicate a malady, though he would often be proved right.
But these obsessions, if that's what they were, had at least roused my dear companion from his lethargy, so I was willing to indulge him until a real case came our way.
Of course, these errands took me to the strangest places and people cloaked in the utmost secrecy, none of them what I would have thought a Catholic secret society would be.
One day we were both coming inside Baker Street at the same moment when Holmes stopped with his foot in the door. "Do you hear that?"
"I hear nothing."
"Precisely. Mrs. Hudson is at home, as it is a Thursday afternoon and she always eats in before going to visit her friend, Mrs. Gale."
"Perhaps she has gone early," I said, trying to extricate my arm from Holmes' strong grasp and head upstairs.
"She's here, Doctor. I can smell the cooking. There was a good price on ducks at the market, and she would have run home with such a prize to prepare a fricassee with much clanging in the kitchen. But Mrs. Hudson is being abnormally silent about it, sir. That can only mean one thing."
We went upstairs at last. I started a little at the sight, but Holmes evidently was prepared for the presence of a priest in our sitting room.
The visitor with strong Italian features and a fine head of curly black hair who was dressed in a severe black cassock was seated in one of the armchairs slanted towards the window. I imagined he might have done so to be able to see us coming in, but the man had a book in his lap that he was studying so intently that he did not seem aware of our presence. At one point he wiped away a tear.
"Good heavens, Holmes," I whispered from where we'd stuck in the doorway. "He looks to have come straight from a funeral. This must be about some sort of tragedy that has already befallen someone."
"Rather, I think our guest has been overcome by an excess of mirth caused by one of the works of Moliere, which corresponds to that empty space on the bookshelf where my lighter fare resides," Holmes said in a louder voice, pointing to the spot on the shelf.
The priest rose, revealing himself to be of medium height and an athletic build, and the smile that took over his face quite changed his features once it reached his light eyes. "Moliere it is. The lady of the house was kind enough to allow me to wait and I wanted a bit of distraction." He stretched out his hand. "I am Father Giuseppe Bruno. I trust I am not intruding at a bad time?" the man said with a thick but not impenetrably accented voice that was also not as severe as his first impression.
"You are very welcome, Father. It isn't every day when we receive a member of the Dominican order in our parlor. I am Sherlock Holmes, and this is Dr. Watson, who has not recently heard of the Black Friars and imagined you to have come here straight from conveying a soul on their last journey. I suspect it is a bit more complicated than that."
The detective's eyes had been moving back and forth between the case at the man's feet, a silk scarf lying on top of it and other details about his appearance that were invisible to me. Far from discomfited, the cleric seemed amused by Holmes' habits. "Let's all sit and discuss while we have a bit of refreshment. Watson, would you mind rousing Mrs. Hudson from her self-imposed pious silence?" He scrawled a note. "And please give her this."
"What will he think of next?" Mrs. Hudson said, taking the note and rushing to the doorway to confer with one of the urchins who were always standing about. Then she returned to the kitchen.
I assured our landlady that our guest would not mind if she clattered and banged as much as she liked while she assembled some food. At the same time, I wondered how Holmes deduced Mrs. Hudson's enormous reverence for the Roman clergy. She pulled out the good dishes, such as she would not usually endanger with the touch of Sherlock Holmes and his chemical experiments.
"Are you Catholic, Mrs. Hudson? I thought you were Church of England?" I asked, impressed by her care in preparation.
"I am, Doctor, but I've always had an admiration for holy people and places worth the bother, and your guest is one. It was the way I was brought up, considering a monastery cured a grandfather's consumption after he was given up by all else. You tell Himself—" she looked upwards towards where the agnostic Holmes was entertaining the priest—"he better behave whilst on this case, if that's what this is about. Unless the Father has come to save that lost soul, please Heaven!"
That was a rather amusing idea, but by the time I returned the two men were conversing in a mixture of English and French over a glass of sherry.
"Don't stand there paralyzed in the doorway, Watson, join us with a glass. There is no overall vow of abstemiousness for Roman clergy. Father Bruno was just telling me that he has been entrusted by his Dominican order to search for some historical artifacts—or firstly, documents that prove they belong to the Vatican—that have fallen into the wrong hands."
Since Holmes was taking no great pains to manufacture surprise at these topics we had been considering for weeks, I answered in the same tone, "Was he now? Holmes has been telling me all along that some of these recently discovered treasures had to do with your church, and your presence here tonight, Father, is yet another proof of my friend's intellect. However, sir, I am surprised you would be consulting an English detective, and one who has little knowledge of any church, though there are many who have wished him to seek spiritual correction."
I was rewarded by a grin from the master detective, who seemed to be in an excellent mood.
"My colleague is right, Father Bruno, you were determined to wait here until I returned. From what I have observed of your physical aspect, you can have only arrived on a steamship from Calais this morning after taking a train from Italy and then another train to London."
"I must know: how you could see that?" the priest laughed.
Holmes never got tired of showing off, and he was happy to do so this evening.
"As for the steamship, there is a distinct smell of salt air mixed in with the incense that imbues your vestments—though not very strongly, since you have been traveling away from your usual holy quarters. And there are a few flakes from the crumbling paint often found on the older model of vessels used at Calais collected there in the cuff of your trousers."
"So there is! Marvelous."
"And the two railway journeys to get from Rome to London would be obvious to anyone, but I can always tell a man who has attempted to shave on a rocking carriage with only a small mirror. I hope the father will not be insulted to find out there are traces of shaving soap at several places along your jawline and ear."
The priest clutched at his face, mortified. "There's a mirror and washbasin there," I pointed, and the carefully dressed cleric rushed to rectify the situation.
"Yes Watson, you are right, our guest's care with his personal aspect befits a Dominican, who have a reputation for being very exacting."
The man returned form the mirror. "Yes, sir, much like yourself, Mr. Holmes, I think." The priest turned a penetrating gaze upon the detective that reminded me that we were in the presence of a man who had more commerce with the beyond than we ever would. Holmes must have been thinking something similar as he allowed himself to be looked at for a change. "And this is why I have been sent to London to find something that has never been in London."
The two immediately plunged into a discussion of church politics that jumped around all points between the fourth century to the present day. As an Anglican and not a very assiduous one at that, I was unable to keep up, and entertained myself by watching my friend's eager brain at work and trying to understand what exactly the Vatican was after.
Conversing eagerly in the diplomatic tongue of French and the English that the Italian understood better than he spoke, they soon had all manner of books out in different languages. Then they turned to the papers in the priest's hand-case, which were mainly in French and Latin. In the latter area I did prove helpful, because my Latin is very good—I took to it even more than my medical studies would have required—and through it I manage some French. Whereas Holmes' near-fluency in French, gained from his French grandmother, was how he arrived at his basic understanding of Latin.
When we got to the Vatican communiqués in Latin, many of them intimidatingly old and signed by popes, Holmes sat back and smoked, taking over as the observer.
I had by this time forgotten my English squeamishness around a formally-clad priest of the Roman sect, and the young man and I—for he was very young, once I stopped looking at his dress—were translating the Latin aloud for Holmes' benefit, the sleuth taking occasional notes.
It was a most amusing evening. Mrs. Hudson had, on Holmes' written instruction, sent out for what turned out to be a red Italian liquor out of deference to our distinguished guest. With the crimson bottle arrived her most elegant fare—duck, floured potatoes and roast Brussels sprouts—but these offerings halted in the doorway.
The landlady found the priest laughing at my pronunciation of the Latin I had only spoken in terms of pathology, while he goaded me into copying his completely fluent cadences. There were stacks of papers and books all over the table, maps were cast on the floor with buttons and nails marking key spots, and Holmes was laughing more than I had seen him laugh in ages.
"What's this?" Mrs. Hudson's natural proprietary instinct kicked in when she saw the mess. Then she remembered the priest there. "I beg your pardon, Father, for this mess. Mr. Holmes, do clear that table so that your guest can have his fine meal before it gets cold."
Holmes sprang up to get the heavy tray from our landlady, while the priest made a walkway through the rubble and I cleared the table.
"This is a most excellent offering, Mrs. Hudson," Father Bruno said with that mixture of solemnity and kindness that made him seem fully a priest to me for the first time since I initially laid eyes on him. "Would you care to stay for the blessing? I think my new friends would not object, no matter what their beliefs?" He glanced from me to the detective.
Holmes and I made demurring gestures and Mrs. Hudson sat with us while the cleric offered a short prayer, also in Latin. I'm far from a Catholic, but the well-worn phrases giving thanks to a creator and commending our wellbeing, both physical and spiritual, to Him, were rather refreshing. Mrs. Hudson seemed to get caught up in the music of the syllables she couldn't understand, but most surprisingly, Holmes seemed struck.
"Thank you, Father. Enjoy your meal and let me know if you need anything else." The landlady took her leave.
While we ate, the purpose of the visit was put to one side.
"How did you know that I liked Campari?" Father Bruno indicated the liquor. "It is true Italians are known for their taste for it, but certainly not everyone partakes. I am sure you sent out for it based on something more than a stereotype, Mr. Holmes."
"There are several spots of red on the sleeve of your white vestment you wear under the black." The priest glanced at his sleeve, and Holmes continued in his neutral tone, "I did not discount the possibility that it was blood from some murder, since I could not examine it closely, but I though it a worthy guess that could hopefully be proven as fact before the after-dinner drinks came round."
The detective burst out laughing at my look of horror that he had just called a priest a murderer, and the cleric in question had soon joined him.
"And did you obtain this proof, sir?" Father Bruno inquired.
Holmes' face grew cautious. "There were several splashes on your documents as well. When you weren't looking I licked one," the priest's eyebrow inched upwards, "And it tasted everything like the drink no Englishman would ever seek out, and nothing like blood. And for a person in your situation, carrying priceless papers, you would have thought first of saving them from your spilled drink, rather than your sleeve."
Father Bruno clapped his hands. "I brought a bottle with me and sadly spilled it on the train, but at least my papers were mostly spared."
Holmes then asked for news of the always-turbulent Italian political scene. We talked too of Spain, which is where the Vatican hoped its treasures had gotten mixed in with all the other resurfaced jewels and were being fought over by anarchists and any number of other groups. I ventured a few questions myself about the man Bruno himself, who was very likable though we still knew him so little.
"It is true that I am a Dominican, but there are far more layers to the Catholic church than most people will ever understand," Bruno said. "The Vatican is indeed its own kind of government. I have the privilege to work with an elite group, not unlike your, how do you say, Ministry of Foreign Affairs?"
"Foreign Office," I supplied.
"We are charged with dealing with the other political powers of Europe. Which is more important than ever since we lost Lazio."
"Latium," Holmes translated. Of course, we had been over and over the Italy's annexation of the last of the Papal States. A dark look had come over the priest's face, and soon we had finished the meal on lighter subjects.
"The Roman Question is on the lips of many in Europe," Holmes returned to the question—obviously painful for our guest—of how the church's historical holdings could be resolved in the light of a modern Europe.
The detective spoke mildly while we shared the after-dinner cigarettes he and I have after a meal. The priest had finally accepted a cigarette after great deliberation, and he was enjoying it as if he were inhaling the most precious vapor. Doubtless, Holmes though it was a good moment to get to the grain of the problem. "For now, His Holiness the pope is not too uncomfortable in his reduced fiefdom?"
The most extraordinary change came over our guest, and I have seen many fits and frenzies in this parlor. Outwardly, Father Bruno did not move a muscle. But his face, his tone, his very presence, became something quite distinct from the pleasant person we'd been entertaining this evening.
"We want what is ours," the priest said. "The church stands on the earth and holds its head high to Heaven. History changes, but the church, with its roots deep in history, is eternal. These are paradoxes, such as those that must be confronted by faith. Which is why I was instructed to seek terrestrial means—" the dark head nodded to us gravely—"To serve a spiritual end." Our guest said his mission clearly first time.
"We believe that a very precious necklace was within the gems that have recently come to light in Spain. There are many precious stones in this necklace, which is all that would appeal to the average thief. But each link has a sort of coin depicting key events affirming in the church's territorial power, earlier than Charlemagne. With the papal territory reduced to nothing, we should very much like to acquire this unbroken chain of events affirming the pope's earthly reach."
Holmes was nodding while the priest laid a detailed drawing before us. "This necklace is truly priceless, and when it surfaces among the collectors of Europe these documents will be decisive proof that the necklacewhat we call the Pope's Medallions belongs in the Vatican. This is not only a question of justice, it would be of immense importance for the prestige of the Papal States."
I was impressed by this show of nationalism—especially proud, as it would be in any dispossessed people—heightened by spiritual fervor. I suddenly felt that if Irene Adler had absconded with any Vatican jewels, she was up against a formidable enemy.
When I glanced at Holmes to see how he'd received the speech, I saw that my dear friend was impressed as well. He got up to fill our glasses—the priest's with that red Campari drink, and ours with an after-dinner port—when normally Sherlock Holmes left the care of our clients to me. This time, however, the detective took great care pouring the drinks. He took so long that I could only think he was making an excuse to have his back to us at the liquor-tray, and I wondered if I'd missed some flaw in our guest's story that Holmes was pondering. But by the time he was distributing the spirits, my friend's expression was that of a thoroughly engaged Sherlock Holmes in good company.
Surely our guest had taken no note at all of those few seconds of privacy, having begun a quiet study of the sketches from Toby Duffle.
And yet, I detected in the detective a brooding quality, and I worried that this case was not living up to his great need for distraction. You see, the great sleuth's deductive powers exceed mine in every realm except one: he himself. I've sometimes thought that Holmes' intelligence is like the marine biologist who studies the morphology and breeding habits of any species in the ocean down to the smallest plankton. But he is wholly indifferent, if not ignorant, of the large icebergs and freighters that move right by his side.
In my companion's case, these were the passions, the currents that move by Holmes as if they are strangers to the very life that they in some way represent. I then had the idea that if my friend were to find something to cling to, something spiritual to aspire to, in between cases, he might not sink so far into the depths.
We were each of us in our own brown study then, Holmes leafing through some of the documents in the priest's case, and no doubt examining the case itself. I was trying to put a finger on the sense that the most interesting occurrence at that moment was occurring within that great mind.
The priest was the first to break the long silence. "My good sirs, you have given me an excellent evening with the very best of your considerable attention, but it is true I have not rested like this—" he laid his hand flat "in some time." He had abandoned the straight-backed table chairs soon after dinner, and now I understood why he preferred the upholstered seats. "Shall I give you time to make your inquiries? You can reach me at the cathedral school, where I am to be given a bed that will at least be flat."
"Father Bruno, I have not yet said I would take your case," came Holmes' most silken voice. The man looked up confused, and Holmes seemed to enjoy this jolt. "As Dr. Watson so astutely pointed out, I am hardly the first choice for the task of untangling the church's holdings in Europe. That is a task for a historian and perhaps a lawyer, and while my companion and I can stand for many things in a pinch, the correct distribution of these precious objects to their rightful owner has an intense symbolic import to your employers."
Holmes paused to check that his listener was, in fact, hanging on his every word. "What I have deduced from our most enjoyable evening is that the Vatican knows very well it possesses the best documentation for this necklace, as well as a few others of considerable value. What you do not know is who has the medallion chain: any one of a multitude of Spanish players, Italy, professional thieves or someone else—or if the necklace simply wasn't with the others in the Spanish vault. What you wish me to do is bring my deductive powers and sit down at this card game, so to speak, to discern who is bluffing, and who is not. Who has your jeweled medallions, in other words."
"That is precisely it, Mr. Holmes. There are things even the Vatican cannot do, but you could." The priest was left hanging in a long, eager silence.
"I will take your case, Father Bruno, but you should know my conditions. I work to return whatever artifacts we can locate to their rightful owner. If it happens that someone from Spain or Egypt or China appears with the most convincing line of provenance, your pope's medallions will go to them."
I was afraid he would be offended, but the priest's splendid smile was back in place. "Of course, Mr. Holmes. If you were not honorable, I would not be here. From one man working in the service of what he knows to be good, to you and you," he bowed to each of us, "I bid you good night."
While the Italian packed up his papers into his hand-case, Holmes asked casually, "I meant to inquire, Father, if you met up with a friend of mine while in Spain. A certain Arlene Adler—an unforgettable woman. American, about so tall, reddish hair?" he indicated with his hand.
The priest stopped for a moment and considered. "I didn't come across many American ladies while I was in Spain, but I'm sure I didn't—" he laughed. "The woman who is wanted on suspicion of tampering with or stealing perhaps these very jewels I seek? I've seen her picture in the paper, and if I had been introduced to her we would have had a most interesting interview."
The priest took his hand-case and departed.
Holmes and I were both lost in our thoughts after the dishes were stacked and left for Mrs. Hudson to claim in the morning. "Perhaps I have had some prejudices about those in the Roman clergy, but he wasn't at all what I expected," I remarked. "I can't say when I've had a more pleasant time with the client on a case."
"Quite so. It's at the point of humor that cultures usually diverge, but I found his wit to be very compatible with the English variety—deprecating any sort of ceremony," Holmes concurred.
"Exactly," I said. "You know, for long stretches of time, I forgot he was a priest! No doubt I've not shared a meal and a drink with a Catholic clergyman, so I've not seen them off-duty, as it were."
Holmes had a look on his face I knew to be significant, and it made me ask. "What? Are you saying he's not a priest?"
"Are you?" he returned.
"Of course not," I rushed to say. "I simply mean that I've not met a priest-and-then-some, a clergyman with an impressive post like his—a diplomat, in some sense. It's an unusual combination, at least for my limited experience."
"And for me, doctor, the Latin is a dead giveaway. Not the Latin he was decoding with you, which could have been the fluency of a scholar as well as a clergyman who has spoken it in school and in the halls of the Vatican."
"The prayer," I grasped. "Yes, it affected me, and I'm almost as much a skeptic as you. Mrs. Hudson was very moved. How you knew her feelings about Roman priests, I'll never know."
Holmes made a trifling notion with his hand about the reference to his talent. "Yes, just so. Only a member of the clergy has well-worn grooves in his sing-song prayer after much habit. Would you be able to reproduce what he said in English?"
I labored over as much as I remembered after a long day, and Holmes gave a desultory look through the papers the priest had left us. "If not his ordination, what is it that is bothering you?" I pursued.
"It's not a bother," his eyes flicked once over mine. "It's a great pleasure in the perfect remedy to my lethargy. I have no idea how this case is going to end, Watson." He looked down at his pipe while he lit it. "For all I know this necklace never existed anywhere except in the legends passed from friar to friar as a proof of their beloved church's long patrimony. If that's the case, we are left with some Spanish anarchists anarchists who rightly thought that posturing with a few gems would make them look more powerful than they are."
He smoked for some moments considering the drawing of the medallions. "It could also be that one of these engravings depicts a lost and very convincing papal claim to what is now Italian territory. The Italian state would wish to suppress such evidence, and Irene could have been one of their agents employed to do so."
He continued calmly, "If it is Italy who has a more convincing claim to the medallion, then I shall give it to them, but I will not turn over heaven and earth for some much less diverting Italian diplomat unless they employ me to do so."
"Surely there is some justice to be done here," I protest. "There always is."
"Oh I've never been more sure of it than with this case, my dear friend," said the mouth around the pipe in a tone of great warmth. "But my sense is that here, it may be hard to recognize as such. And neither you nor I, Doctor, should venture in these deep waters except in the service of some well-oriented party as a rudder."
The lanky frame unfolded from the chair at last. "As of this morning, I was in part a convalescent, so I will put myself to bed before you propel me there by force of lecture."
"Good man." I watched him wander over to the bookshelf. Compared to this most recent crisis of some weeks, I myself could go to bed, happy that my friend would be guaranteed distraction diversion for some time with this case.
Holmes took several books off the shelf and turned with the stack in his arms to catch my doubtful look. "In case our stimulating evening doesn't let me go so soon."
"Take one of the sachets I've left on your table if it gets too late," I admonished.
When I got to my feet after a few minutes, I happened to wonder what Holmes' first move would be, out of the wealth of information that must be verified. To that end, I stopped by the bookcase on my way out of the room. The books he chose were most peculiar—not European history or law, though both will figure in this matter. One was from the collection of anatomy books. Another was something to do with ancient myths—I couldn't recall if the book that belonged there was to do with Egypt or Babylonia or Greece.
The rest brought me up short. The detective had retrieved an entire series of books that I myself had placed in Holmes' completely idiosyncratic filing system. Unlike most of my contributions it was never re-filed, no doubt because he refused to take account of it.
It was a collection of essays from the German and French medical experts embarking on the study of the mind in a scientific fashion. They were badly translated into English, but of all the new developments in medicine, the study of man's inner workings fascinated me the most. These preliminary theories with their case studies were all by rather brilliant doctors who were attempting to discover the logic behind our seemingly ungoverned passions.
I'd dipped into the volumes a few times when we had cases involving some kind of disorder of obscure inner workings. Once or twice they'd been helpful in reminding my ascetic friend of these human dimensions that he sometimes forgot to account for in the humans involved in his cases.
That Holmes would have chosen those books out of all others as a starting place for this highly intellectual matter had me totally flummoxed. I myself brought my note-book to bed with me and made as many notes from our day as I could before the pencil slipped from my hand.